Sam Melo on why Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s road to rock infamy ran through Tampa Bay

The North Carolina band plays The Ritz on September 17.

click to enlarge NINE LIVES: Rainbow Kitten Surprise frontman Sam Melo, who brings the band to The Ritz in Ybor City, Florida on September 17, 2018. - YVONNE GOUGELET
Yvonne Gougelet
NINE LIVES: Rainbow Kitten Surprise frontman Sam Melo, who brings the band to The Ritz in Ybor City, Florida on September 17, 2018.

Many great bands have emerged from Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s home state of North Carolina (Ben Folds Five, Avett Brothers and Superchunk are a few that come to mind), but the Boone-based outfit’s rise to becoming a festival favorite that’s selling out clubs across the country had to run through the Dominican Republic first.

The Caribbean island is where frontman Sam Melo, whose parents were missionaries, spent seven years of his childhood before circumstances forced a permanent move back to the U.S. In between those two locales were several stops, including one week-long stay in Tampa Bay, and if you believe the lyrics to “Goodnight Chicago” from RKS’ 2015 self-titled LP, then our hometown is where Melo metaphorically killed a man out of spite (“When he died, I took his place,” is how the lyric goes).

VOILA!
Rainbow Kitten Surprise's Tampa concert moved from Orpheum to The Ritz Ybor City

The charismatic frontman — who loves Bustelo coffee — spent 20 minutes talking to CL in advance of his band’s upcoming Ybor City show. Read our full chat and get information on the show below.

Rainbow Kitten Surprise w/Sun Seeker. Mon. Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m. $25 & up. The Ritz, 1503 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City. More info: theritzybor.com.


The tour opens in South Carolina where you essentially wrote the album, but then the next stop is here in Tampa Bay and I wanted to ask you about (your song) "Goodnight Chicago", the lyric says, “Twenty years to see New York reflected on subway trains. 'Bout twenty more I'll be forty-four, head back to Tampa Bay. I killed a man there, in spite, and when he died, I took his place.” I think you’ve only played Florida twice. Can you expand on that? Did something happen to you here where you changed? Any actual connection?

Yeah, so Tampa is kind of a city I only know in a very limited fashion. My dad's cousin lives down there. When my family was moving to and from the Dominican growing up, we would always land in Miami and go stay with him in Tampa. His spot was kind of a transitory period for us. Where we would go and huddle up and maybe my dad and one of my brothers, and myself would go get a U-Haul and get our stuff from the airport, or however it was shipped. And then find our home, which usually was North Carolina.

So we were moving back in the Summer of 2006 and I was about 14, we stayed down there for about a week because we still didn't have a home yet. And it was just kind of a transitory period. It was limbo for me. This was the first time I had been back state-side in years and it all felt really foreign to me and it was kind of like this resolution almost, that this is life now and we're making the best of it.

Was it bad circumstances that you left the Dominican. Were you sad to leave?

When we went down in '99, it was like this is home now and at least until me and my three brothers were old enough to move back stateside on our own, that's where we'd be living. That was the understanding that I had. That was pretty rough going down there as a kid, going from first world comfort to the third world. You adapt pretty quick as a kid and kind of roll into it. So once I was a teenager, everything else was a faint glimmer, I didn't really understand The States, so coming back was a rough transition for sure. And the circumstance that we left — my family had lived on predominately support from missionary organizations — so as time progressed, as happens quite often with people going down to do medical work the excitement and support wains because people don't know what's going on down there. By the time we left, we were pretty broke and it was sort of defeatist, at least from my eyes. I've come to understand it differently. We had few friends back here.

No Cousins?

Well, we have some family up in Minnesota but obviously that is nowhere close to where we were moving to North Carolina. We hadn't been in the South for a long time. It was weird.

Right on. That's super interesting. Thanks for sharing that story. And you were aware of this at 14, I'm assuming you've been a deep feeling person your whole life.

Nah, I was pretty much in my own world, to be honest. These are things that I've come to piece together afterward. At that time I was pretty self-absorbed, self-conscious, I mean, I was 14. Is what I'm wearing OK? Am I going to fit in? I don't understand the culture. The internet. I still had dial-up till a year after we moved back, so MySpace hit me pretty hard.

You talked about it being pretty disheartening or defeatist in a way. You write a lot about your insecurities that you have on your record, but you also have this you also have a steely side that’s resolved itself to pushing the band forward — does that come from that time? What’s the balancing act like between the person we hear on the record and thinks about insecurities and this other person who is committed to making RKS something you can do for the rest of your life?

I think where it comes from is the place that I'm at when I'm writing. You don't tend to hole up by yourself and write lyrics when you're happy. You tend to do it when something is unstable in your real world and then you hole up to gain some measure of control by expelling into this musical format. It's an effort to try to control your thoughts and make some sense of what's going on.


Right on. Your band is in such a great position and there is so much for me to think about and I also wanted to congratulate you on How to: Friend, Love, Freefall. It feels like this big, intricate record that was always kind of hiding in the band's music even when it was a two acoustic guitar band. Jay Joyce (at Neon Cross Studios and Jason Hall) did a great job with your vision. It just sounds great. Has being able to record How To... in the circumstances that you did made you want to go bigger on a new record?

Definitely. Just working with Jay and Jason and the whole crew just opened my eyes to what kind of sonic avenues there were. They always say, "The devil's in the details." And there are just so many details there are into making a good sounding record. And since then I've just been digging into the harmonic series and trying to figure out what makes a sound a sound. And hopefully, that comes out of the next record. All of the things that were hinted at for this last one will get fleshed out. Maybe even more so going forward but also in the performance aspect, as well. Once you make it better you gotta figure out how to play it. It's all fun. It's all good.

Are you still going into these "rabbit hole” states — are you able to work when you are in them? Do you have to cancel all press and just go work? My assumption is that you wrote How To super fast in South Carolina.

What happens is, I learn different things that I'm interested in, like for the last record I got really interested in jazz drumming and the beats, the meters they're in, the different time signatures and playing around with that and usually I go down those avenues for a while until the band snaps me back into reality and it's like, "Oh shit we've got this show to put on, we've got a job to do." So once that reality sets in then it becomes a little bit more productive. I can hop out and do press stuff in the middle of that. I definitely lose my phone for a month and just dive in. The point being, I'll start all of these ideas and show them to the guys and they'll gestate with them for a while and I'll just completely have forgotten about them. By the time I get so disillusioned with trying to figure out the ultimate answer to everything, which I think is what every producer is looking for. You know, the one sound that is all sounds, like combined into one awesome thing, which does not exist, but you're always looking for it.

Once you get over that search and you get heartbroken by it, you realize all of the tools that are now at your disposal. By the time I reached that period, especially with this last record, I just started furiously writing down pages of lyrics, the guys came back and was like, "Sam, you don't have to rewrite a whole other album, look at what we already have. It's like two years old but just brush the dust off and it will be good." I don't know if that's the way this next record is going to come together but given our history, I feel like maybe that right now it's still that gestation period I'm curious to know what's going to come out on the other side of the rabbit hole.


Well, if you keep selling out each show, then Atlantic is going to have to give you more than two-and-a-half weeks in the studio to get it done, right?

That's the thing, Jay and I talked about this, somebody said the first day, so if you have nine months to make a record it's going to take you nine months to make a record. But if you have two weeks, you'll make it in two weeks. If you have three days to make it, you'll make it in three days. Whatever time allotted you have is what you work with. And it would be a different record if it got made in nine months, but sometimes you need the two-week record. Especially in a place of uncertainty.

So you didn't feel constrained, it worked out for you then?

I think it did, I think it went well. Because of I definitely still kind of in that mode of wanting to try too many things and given more time it would have ended up being an incomplete 21 songs record.

I feel like you've said everything that needed to be said about "Hide" the video's origin. But the band is breaking in a really serious way and the story behind it. Are your fans starting to come to you with some pretty heavy coming out stories of their own? Does that feel like a burden for you as your fan base grows and is very devoted to the band? How much are the fans playing into your mindset? Do you feel any kind of responsibility in hearing their stories?

They definitely do, more than even with "Hide," which was kind of personal, but "Painkillers" is one of those on the record that definitely people's stories played into it. It's not a daily thing, you're never like, ok well here's that sad story for the day. You're always blindsided by it. You just played a show or you're just traveling or bullshitting, or whatever and it always comes up and somebody reads it and it's like holy shit guys look at this message that somebody just sent us. Somebody will grab the phone and somebody will read it out loud and everyone listens. I'm glad that it's doing something for people, that people can relate to it. You never think that when you put words on to a paper that anybody else is going to pick it up and say word for word, that's me, and identify with it. I think it's cool that people, it always hits ya like the story would. Like if somebody loses a friend and somehow our music is cathartic to them, go for it, man. Whatever you need.


The album is built around this narrative about how hard it is to pay bills as a musician, it started out as a different idea and you've mentioned this pressure that comes with being a band, basically gone from becoming locally famous after Bozz asked you to play the Galileo show and now you have PR, festival dates, this following, how are you coping this last year, after writing this album, releasing it and going on this tour?

Financially or otherwise?

No mentally. I'm always under the assumption that the band life is never is as glamorous as you think it is. You heard words like Atlantic and all this stuff, but it's just so hard to make it as a band, even at your level.

I wouldn't say it gets easier, it certainly gets more routine. I was just talking about this with my bassist last night, you encounter different sets of problems the further you go. At first, it's "How do you pay bills? How do you find time to practice between working jobs or school?"

But after a while it becomes, you're playing shows every night, you're having to do these press things on the days in between, you gotta always portray... because everybody that is coming at you is coming from the perspective of success, like "Wow, congratulations, you're making it." But not every day feels like that, so how do you keep positive things flowing out your mouth without expressing, "Wow, yes, sometimes this is hard," or how do you play shows back to back-to-back every night and how do you still get into it? Still, deliver the caliber performance that you are hoping to. Those are things you gotta figure it out. It's always a new set of gains. I feel like we are the most blessed to be able to play. It's incredible that this is what life is. That those are your problems. Figure out how to enjoy your own show. That's awesome.

And I feel like you've always said it in your music, your answer is to just be yourself.

Be yourself. Life is a grind. Life is work. But back to the Bustelo question. Sometimes life is a grind of the best possible espresso you can put into a percolator. All you gotta do is just pour some cream on top and chug it.  

There's so much of it down here but I keep forgetting it's actually from New York. Everyone uses it down here in Florida. But you guys have tons of it, I'm sure.

Yeah, we stay stocked, for sure. But if you know anybody over there, we have been trying to reach out to them for some time.

If I hear of a Bustelo connection, I will definitely help get that sponsorship for you guys.

Swag.

Thank you for your taking the time and we look forward to seeing you guys at The Orpheum, (Now playing the Ritz due to popular demand), when you guys come down to Ybor City for pretty much the tour kickoff. Safe travels to you.

Thanks for asking dope questions.

Dude, thanks for making music that makes me want to ask questions like that.

Swag. It was good talking to you.


About The Authors

Yvonne Gougelet

Yvonne Gougelet is a playwright, theater producer, actress, activist and political & music journalist. She has performed in the theater for 20 years in nearly 50 plays in London, Scotland, Chile, NYC, Chicago, Miami & Tampa. She has written, produced, directed & performed in four original plays. She has appeared...

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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